Ken Burns’ sprawling “Baseball” documentary series opens with archival photos of Brooklyn while a narrator quotes Walt Whitman from a 1846 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle. Then he talks about Charles H. Ebbets, the Dodgers, and how some of Baseball’s greatest drama would take place at Ebbets Field.
The Brooklyn Dodgers started out as a minor-league team and with different names; the Atlantics, the Bridegrooms, Ward’s Wonders, the Superbas, and then the Robins. “Dodgers” was short for “Trolley Dodgers.” Yes—Brooklyn was once teeming with trolley cars that could run you down if you crossed the street too slowly.
The Dodgers joined the National League in 1890 and played at Ebbets Field from 1913 to 1957. Being perennial losers contributed to the image of Brooklynites as losers and underdogs. Their fans called them “bums.”
Their most famous loss was “The Shot Heard Around the World” which occurred during the 1951 National League Championship series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit a three-run homer that gave the Giants a 5-4 National League Pennant victory.
While the Dodgers managed to win 10 National League pennants, they lost all five World Series battles against the “Bronx Bombers”—A.K.A. the New York Yankees (1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953.) Dedicated fans would ride subways between the Brooklyn and the Bronx each time in what was called a “Subway Series.” The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in 1955, winning their only World Series, and in their hometown of Brooklyn. They left to become the Los Angeles Dodgers only 2 years later, which was the beginning of the end of Brooklyn for many fans.
Make no mistake—even though Brooklyn has always been very diverse, racism has existed here as it has in the rest of the country. Local communities were a little more self-segregated and didn’t mix much in the first half of the last century. Ebbets Field, though, was one place where all Brooklynites could cheer and jeer together at their “bums.” With the stadium’s limited footprint and high seat count, seats were tight. Brooklyn’s diverse populace would literally rub elbows.
Baseball was racially segregated until 1947, when Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey signed on Jackie Robinson to join the team. Rickey had scouted the Negro Leagues for years before he found someone who was not only a gifted athlete but someone “with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson played his first game as first baseman on April 12, 1947, at Ebbets Field in front of 26,623 spectators, over 14,000 of whom were black. He won the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year award that year and was the first black player to receive the National League’s MVP Award in 1949. Jackie Robison brought pride to Brooklyn and kick-started the civil rights movement for the country. He was a hero to all and remains the most beloved Brooklynite to hail from Pasadena, California.
“42” is a good movie about the whole thing. It stars Chadwick Boseman (you know—Black Panther) and Harrison Ford (you know—Han Solo.) Few people know about “The Jackie Robinson Story” It stars Jackie Robinson as himself! It came out in 1950, so it doesn’t tell the complete story.
Where to watch a game today
Basketball and Hockey: Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s only major indoor arena, opened in 2012 (amid public outcry.) It is now home to both the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the NHL’s NY Islanders. They have a lot of good concerts there, too.
Baseball: The Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league team, has a stadium in Coney Island where Steeplechase park was once located. (June–September)
Soccer: The New York Cosmos (1985–2012) were revived in 2013 with new owners and corporate sponsors but have struggled recently, cancelling the North American Soccer League’s 2018 season. They are currently on Hiatus.
Rugby: The Brooklyn Kings started in 2014 as members of the American Rugby League. They practice in Brooklyn Bridge Park and play in Williamsburg’s Bushwick Inlet Park. (May–July)
Other than that, sports are something to participate in rather than watch. There are great parks for basketball, baseball, soccer, skateboarding… you name it.
Mikes, Joes, and Vinnies
Among the most famous sports figures to emerge from Brooklyn are Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Joe Patterno, Joe Pepitone, Joe Torre, Vince Lombardi and Vinnie Testaverde. To be fair, Michael “Air” Jordan was born in Brooklyn but he and his family moved out when he was just a toddler.
More sports history
The Dodgers and Cylones aren’t the only baseball teams to call Brooklyn home. One of the earliest known box scores for the game lists the “Brooklyn Players” in October 21, 1845. The 1860s had Atlantic, Excelsior, Eckford teams dominate the games of the first U.S baseball organization, the NABBP (National Association of Base Ball Players.)
Football teams included the AFL’s Brooklyn Horsemen and NFL’s Brooklyn Lions, both playing only one season in 1926. There was the AFL’s Brooklyn Tigers in 1936, not to be confused with the NFL’s Brooklyn Tigers that played Ebbets field in 1944. They used to be called the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1933 to 1943, not to be confused with the baseball team that also played Ebbets field. Do you have a headache yet?
Finally, the other lovable losers were the ice hockey team called the Brooklyn Americans. Like the Dodgers, they had many very talented players but couldn’t catch a break. Unlike the Dodgers, though, most of the players weren’t Brooklyn residents and they played home games at Madison Square Garden, which is in Manhattan.